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I Understand
Volume 5.1 / The Ministerial Legacy of Pastor Le Van Thai (1890–1985)


The Ministerial Legacy of Pastor Le Van Thai (1890–1985)

Daniel C. Owens
As the global Christian movement grows, Christians around the world will be enriched by learning about the leaders who have contributed to the growth of the church in the non-western world. Among those leaders, Rev. Le Van Thai (1890–1985) stands out as a pastor who contributed substantially to the growth of the evangelical church in Vietnam. This paper examines his life and work. His autobiography (Bốn Mươi Sáu Năm Chức Vụ [Saigon, 1971]) and two of his books, Người Truyền Đạo Của Đức Chúa Trời (God’s Preacher) and Châu Ngọc của Thi Thiên (The Pearl of the Psalms) illustrate his thinking.

 1. Introduction[1]

Westerners watching global trends in the spread of Christianity often focus on the statistical shifts of church growth to the non-western world, and those numbers have awakened many to the fantastic reality of Christ’s church in the global south and East Asia. However, many of the theological and ministerial heroes of the faith are still westerners, even for those outside the West. We simply do not know much about local heroes of the faith, whose lives and ministries have marked the global church. Often the barrier is not simply neglect but the practical challenge of language. For Vietnam, this barrier is considerable.

For that reason, in this paper I explore the life and ministry of Rev. Le Van Thai, who is widely respected among Vietnamese Christians and left for us a small collection of works in Vietnamese that cover his life, preaching philosophy, and approach to biblical interpretation. Rev. Thai filled the role of President of the Evangelical Church of Vietnam (ECVN) from 1942–1960. Following his retirement, he wrote several books and taught at the Bible and Theology Institute in Nha Trang.[2] Through his teaching, Rev. Thai made his mark not only on the direction of the denomination but also on the lives and ministries of the generation of pastors who are currently leading the Evangelical Church of Vietnam (South). However, since much of his early ministry took place in northern Vietnam, he is well-known and respected there as well.

In this essay I present a brief picture of the life and ministry of Rev. Thai and then describe his intellectual contribution by examining two of his works. Through them we see that Rev. Le Van Thai was at heart an evangelist who imagined himself living out the story of the Bible through his ministry. Although his appropriation of biblical texts may strike some readers as ahistorical and simplistic proof-texting, that appropriation bears concrete witness to his own ministerial identity. He applies this imaginative, personal hermeneutic throughout his memoirs, in which he superimposes his experiences in ministry on various passages of the Bible. We might say that Rev. Thai was consciously and imaginatively improvising on the biblical script. He was what Kevin Vanhoozer calls a minstrel of the word.[3] Although not all readers will like how we speaks about the word, part of understanding the global church is to encounter the ways in which ordinary Christians and Christian leaders engage with the word.[4] Through his memoirs, we see that Rev. Thai lived with an immediate sense that he was living out the biblical story. Rev. Thai not only applies his biblical imagination to his memoirs, he also advocates for preachers to apply their imaginations in the process of biblical interpretation and sermon preparation.

2. Life and Memoirs

The most important source for learning about Rev. Thai is his memoirs.[5] They give us a window into his life, ministry, and thought. Most other sources about the ministry of Rev. Thai depend on these memoirs.[6] Unfortunately, that means our perspective about Rev. Thai is necessarily limited. Even the Rev. Dr. Le Hoang Phu, in his PhD dissertation at New York University, depended heavily on the memoirs of Rev. Thai.[7] In general, those who write about Rev. Thai respect him, so it is difficult to find perspectives that do not agree with him, but we can still learn a great deal from his memoirs and writings.[8] 

 2.1. Preaching the Gospel throughout Vietnam

Above all, Rev. Thai was an evangelist. Although he was from central Vietnam, he worked in all three regions (North, Central, and South), including such places as Hoi An, My Tho, Hanoi, Thanh Hoa, Da Lat, and Nha Trang.[9] From the beginning of his memoirs, we see two key characteristics. First, Rev. Thai shows that his heart was committed to the work of evangelism. Second, Rev. Thai’s biblical imagination thoroughly shaped his recollections, as if his ministry was re-enacting corresponding points of the biblical story.

The first chapter of his memoirs, “From Darkness to Light,” proves those two points. Rev. Thai uses John 1:5 to describe his life before he converted as being “in DARKNESS.”[10] As a youth, Rev. Thai saw himself “having the duty to protect the traditions of the spirit of his people,” so he always opposed Christian preachers, which he saw as a threat to traditional Vietnamese culture.[11] However, he heard an evangelist argue that “anyone who does not follow the gospel, who does not believe in Jesus, who does not worship God, has abandoned his ancestors.”[12] If one does not follow the gospel, that person loses his origin, that is, the Creator.[13] Rev. Thai reflected on that and realized he could not say who his ancestors were, even back ten generations. At the same time, he recognized that “God is the source of all creatures,” so he converted to the evangelical faith in 1919.[14]

Even as a new Christian, Le Van Thai desired to become an evangelist. He compares his desire to preach with 1 Samuel 16:7, which describes God’s choice of David to be king of Israel: “Man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart”[15] Citing this verse, Rev. Thai found affirmation from God in support of his desire to become an evangelist.

His older brother entered the first class at the Bible school in Da Nang in 1920. Rev. Thai entered the Bible school two years later, in 1922.[16] After studying for two years in Da Nang, he married and was appointed as an evangelist at the Hoi An Church, which was just a few miles down the road from the Bible school.[17] His daily work there included both teaching the Bible and meeting for worship with believers on Sunday and going out to do evangelism on Mondays and Fridays. Following his description of his ministerial tasks, Rev. Thai uses 1 Timothy 4:13–16 to describe his ministry.[18] After fifteen months, Rev. Thai returned to Da Nang to study further in the Bible school. In 1926 Rev. Thai moved many miles south to lead the My Tho Church, which is in the Mekong Delta.[19] There he rubbed shoulders with church members who came with political agendas.[20] That experience probably influenced his later perspective that the church should not participate in political activities. In My Tho he focused on preaching the gospel, and in one year 565 people were baptized there.[21]

In 1927 he returned to Da Nang to finish his studies at the Bible school.[22] After graduating, the believers in My Tho wanted him to return to minister there. However, despite his preference to the contrary, in 1928 the Executive Committee of the denomination appointed him to a ministry in Hanoi, which is in northern Vietnam.[23] He explains his experience of obeying the Executive Committee of the church using 2 Corinthians 6:1, “We worked together with the Lord.”[24] In addition, when he and his wife arrived in Hanoi, they needed to find a place to live. He compares their situation to the image of the sparrow and the swallow who find a home in the temple in Psalm 84:3.[25]

In Hanoi, Rev. Thai began an evangelistic program working with the young adults group in the church.[26] They would cross the Long Bien Bridge to the village of Gia Thuong. In Gia Thuong Rev. Thai faced opposition to his preaching from the village chief, who ordered him to stop preaching based on a decree from the French governor. In response, Rev. Thai argued that the decree only applied to foreigners and “the people of the protectorate” (dân Bảo hộ). But it did not apply to people belonging to a French colony, and Rev. Thai was a person from a French colony. In his memoirs he compares this event with a similar event in the Bible when the Apostle Paul used his citizenship to protect him when he was arrested in Jerusalem.[27] In 1929 Rev. Thai worked with Ms. H. H. Dixon to evangelize several areas around Hanoi, including Gia Lam, Bach Mai, Cau Giay, Yen Phu, Thai Ha Ap, Cau Den, and Ha Nong.[28]

In 1932 Rev. Thai became the chairman of the northern district of the evangelical church, which involved caring for 30 churches in the Red River Delta region.[29] In 1933, he left Hanoi to preach the gospel and start churches in Bac Giang. In three months, seventy-two people believed the gospel.[30] In addition, he contributed to the work of starting many churches during wartime.[31] In 1941, he moved to Sam Son (Thanh Hoa) to manage the churches in the area, but in 1942, when the Japanese army entered Vietnam, the church called him to return to Hanoi. At this point in his memoirs, Rev. Thai mentions another biblical character to illustrate this event: “Once again, in the spirit of Abraham, we did not know where we were going” (cf. Heb 11:8).[32] As he describes in his memoirs, during the early period of his ministry, Rev. Thai was busy doing evangelism, experiencing many events that paralleled stories in the Bible, as if he was participating in the biblical story in the twentieth century.

 2.2. Guiding the Church through Political Minefields

In 1942, Rev. Thai became the President of the Evangelical Church of Vietnam, taking over from Rev. Le Dinh Tuoi, who was fighting serious illness.[33] When he began this role, Rev. Thai was still living in Hanoi, and he remained there until the Japanese army surrendered and the war for Vietnamese independence began. The war against the French made Hanoi a dangerous place, and many believers left for safer areas. However, Rev. Thai and a missionary, William Cadman, remained in Hanoi to “care for the church facility.”[34] Although today the Evangelical Church of Vietnam (ECVN) is divided into two separate denominations, North and South, at that time there was only one. Rev. Thai served as President for nineteen years, but in 1951 he moved to Da Lat and after that to Nha Trang.

Many writers agree that Rev. Thai’s most important contribution as President of the ECVN regarded the relationship between the ECVN and the government. Rev. Phu comments that Rev. Thai led the denomination according to a policy of not interfering in politics.[35] When evaluating the influence of Rev. Thai, another pastor notes especially the wisdom of Rev. Thai in leading the evangelical church in a time full of political pressures.[36] Dinh Dung agrees:

The policy of the Evangelical Church of Vietnam with regard to the nation was impacted greatly by Rev. Le Van Thai. When facing numerous dilemmas and societal convulsions, he still held fast to the spirit of faithfully preaching salvation in Christ, not participating in politics.[37]

To understand the policy of Rev. Thai, we need to understand the context of 1945. On September 2, 1945, Ho Chi Minh declared Vietnamese independence from France. Almost a week later, on September 8, Rev. Thai, along with Rev. Tran Van De, visited Ho Chi Minh. On this occasion, Ho Chi Minh suggested to Rev. Thai, “You should establish a movement of Evangelicals to Save the Nation in the church.”[38] Rev. Thai considered this suggestion but said,

All believers are immersed in the people; whatever group to which they belong, let them remain in that group. For example, the young adults, workers, boatmen, government workers, clergy; every organization has its own group to save the nation. If I establish Evangelicals to Save the Nation, then I must pull those believers out of their respective groups, thereby might I be contributing to confusion and disintegration? Besides, the principle of the Evangelical Church of Vietnam is that the Gospel must be pure and without political coloring, not engaging in politics and not permitting anyone to spread political propaganda.[39]

When Ho Chi Minh asked for a reason, Rev. Thai answered, “Because history proves, if a religion goes along with politics, then when the religion is strong, it will distract politics, and likewise when politics are strong, it will distract religion. Between the two, this one or that one will dominate the other.”[40] In the end, Ho Chi Minh “agreed to let the Evangelical Church of Vietnam remain in its former status.”[41] It is interesting to note that during this meeting, Rev. Thai did not argue on the basis of the Bible. We can only speculate why, but nowhere in his memoirs does he justify this policy on the basis of Scripture.

When recounting this event, as well as his ministry in My Tho in 1926–1927, Rev. Thai implies that the policy of the church not to participate in politics was already in place. He does not say who created this policy, but Rev. Phu and several others noted above agree that this is a policy that Rev. Thai instituted. Whether that is accurate or not, everyone agrees that the policy of the church avoiding politics was a particular emphasis of Rev. Thai. That meant that under the Revolutionary Government, the church did not participate in the Communist Party. But just the same, under the regime of Ngo Dinh Diem, the first president of the Republic of Vietnam (also known as South Vietnam), the church also did not follow Diem’s party.

However, in 1955, during the time of Ngo Dinh Diem, Rev. Thai was challenged on this point. At the time, South Vietnam organized what they called an “anti-communist campaign.” During this campaign, a young pastor in Saigon named Bui Tri Hien set up a Central Committee of the Anti-communist Campaign. On the basis of Rev. Thai’s report regarding his meeting with Ho Chi Minh in 1945, Rev. Hien accused Rev. Thai of being a “communist sympathizer.” However, local churches did not agree.[42] Rev. Phu comments that Rev. Hien’s goal in accusing Rev. Thai of being pro-communist was to change the leadership of the denomination according to the wishes of President Ngo Dinh Diem and his brother Ngo Dinh Nhu. However, Rev. Ong Van Huyen, the Chairman of the General Assembly of the General Council (of the ECVN), concluded that the accusations against Rev. Thai could be dismissed as “improper” and lacking any legal documentation to support them (the letter accusing Rev. Thai was anonymous, and signatories to the letter testified that they had been unaware that they were signing a letter of accusation), but the General Assembly considered the accusations anyway to avoid misunderstanding among the laity.[43] Following this examination, Rev. Huyen summarized the conclusions of the sessions by saying that the accusations were “slanderous and unfounded.”[44] Rev. Phu concludes that, if the accusations of Rev. Thai were a conspiracy intended to lead the Evangelical Church to follow the direction of Ngo Dinh Diem’s government, they failed, and the policy of Rev. Thai to avoid politics succeeded.[45] Rev. Phu praises the “tactful and firm leadership” of Rev. Thai who followed “a steady course of noninvolvement in politics during this period so eventful for both the nation and the church.”[46]

It is interesting to note anecdotally that in all of my time in Vietnam, I have met few evangelicals who seek to participate in politics. In general, the leaders of the Evangelical Church of Vietnam, including those in the north and the south, follow this policy. However, in his 1972 doctoral dissertation, Rev. Phu implies that the opposing viewpoint to this policy was widespread. This policy, “impractical and naïve as it might have seemed to many, proved to be wise and most beneficial to the church in the long view.”[47] According to what I have witnessed in southern Vietnam, virtually all the pastors in the ECVN(S) are afraid of being branded a “state-run enterprise pastor,” meaning that they are pastors who follow the direction of the government. For that reason, they do not want to be close to politicians and do not want to participate in political activities. Perhaps that is one of the outcomes of the events of 1955, when Rev. Thai was accused of being “a communist sympathizer.” But at the same time, pastors try to avoid any activities fighting against the communist party or the government. Among the younger generation, I see some evangelical believers beginning to criticize the government on social media. However, most pastors do not do this. Quite the opposite, they avoid saying anything of a political nature.

Although Rev. Thai did not want the church to follow a political party, he rubbed shoulders with several characters who were important to the politics of Vietnam in the twentieth century. In 1933 when Rev. Ong Van Huyen was invited to become the pastor of the Hue Church in central Vietnam, Rev. Thai went with Rev. Huyen to meet with several important people in Hue. Among them were Huynh Thuc Khang and Phan Boi Chau, both of whom were famous revolutionaries. Rev. Thai shared the gospel with these two men, and in turn Phan Boi Chau read one of his poems to the pastors.[48] This event illustrates Rev. Thai’s consistent focus on evangelism.

Then in 1945, in addition to meeting Ho Chi Minh, Rev. Thai met several other political leaders. After his meeting with Ho Chi Minh, Rev. Thai went to southern Vietnam to meet a missionary named E. F. Irwin in My Tho before Irwin returned to his home country. Ho Chi Minh had provided travel papers to Rev. Thai to go from the north to the south.[49] When Rev. Thai arrived in Bien Hoa, just outside Saigon, because of the dangerous situation at the time, the person helping Rev. Thai along his journey to My Tho told him that only Ton Duc Thang, who would later succeed Ho Chi Minh as President of North Vietnam, could bring Rev. Thai safely to My Tho.[50] After arriving in My Tho, Rev. Thai and Mr. Thang stayed together in a hotel room. In keeping with the heart of an evangelist, Rev. Thai shared the gospel from Ephesians 4:1–16. Mr. Thang happily replied, “In my life, this night I feel very happy and light in my heart.”[51] The next morning, Rev. Thai preached in My Tho and then returned to the hotel. Ton Duc Thang told him that “the (communist) chairman of the southern region, Pham Van Bach” had invited Rev. Thai to eat a meal at the hotel. In addition to Pham Van Bach and Ton Duc Thang, Hoang Quoc Viet, a key figure in the Viet Minh and later in Vietnam National Front, also ate with Rev. Thai and two other pastors.[52] They discussed the “issue of preaching the gospel” because the government wanted to understand more about the evangelical church. On another occasion, when Rev. Thai had returned to Hanoi, and Ton Duc Thang came on a trip to the north, Rev. Thai and Mr. Thang shared a meal with William Cadman, a missionary. They discussed the political views of evangelicals to know whether evangelicals would follow the Viet Minh or not. Rev. Thai responded, “I am neither Viet Minh nor Viet Gian,[53] just a Vietnamese person who loves the Lord and serves the Lord everywhere and every way.”[54] That sentence succinctly describes Rev. Thai’s political viewpoint. Once again, he does not refer to the Bible, but he emphasizes the work of evangelism.

 2.3. Leaving a Ministerial Legacy to the Next Generation

Rev. Thai influenced many aspects of the evangelical church in Vietnam. I want to mention three areas of influence evident in the Evangelical Church of Vietnam today: his charitable work, his reading and writing books, and the manner of his retirement.

While much of the church’s energy was focused on “spiritual” work such as evangelism, Rev. Thai also gave his attention to charitable work. During the war, Rev. Thai saw that many families had lost fathers and husbands. He lamented that “innocent children” had to go without someone to care for them.[55] For that reason, in 1950, Rev. Thai proposed opening an orphanage.[56] In 1953, the construction of a facility for an orphanage and a school in Nha Trang was completed. According to Rev. Phu, this event drew the attention of many among the intelligentsia, government officials, and poor communities around South Vietnam.[57] However, Rev. Thai recounts that at that time he was opposed in this work by others in the denomination. He explains:

The reason for this opposition in the early days within the church was because of the influence of the Christian & Missionary Alliance. The Christian & Missionary Alliance was a society for preaching the gospel to the whole world, not a society for social or educational work. Missionaries in this society never dealt with social or educational issues.[58]

Probably the debate in the twentieth century about the social gospel in America provides the background to this. It is possible that some C&MA missionaries at the time believed that missionaries should focus on preaching the gospel of salvation so that individuals may be saved, rather than becoming distracted by charitable work. The missionaries of the Christian & Missionary Alliance may have generally followed this position.[59] However, Rev. Thai believed the missionaries erred in choosing only one of the two tasks.[60] In addition to the orphanage and elementary school, Rev. Thai contributed to the construction of a medical clinic in cooperation with the Mennonite Central Committee.[61] For him, gospel preaching and helping others were not in conflict.

Second, Rev. Thai left a legacy for young intellectuals in the evangelical community. Just like A. W. Tozer of the Christian & Missionary Alliance in America, Rev. Thai did not have a high level of education. However, he is known in the Vietnamese evangelical community as a man who read and wrote many books.[62] Rev. Phu comments that Rev. Thai, “following an effective program of self-education,” became “one of the most widely-read pastors in Vietnam, and the most prolific author in the Protestant community.”[63]

Finally, in 1960, at the height of Rev. Thai’s influence on the church, he refused to continue in his role as president of the denomination. One pastor records the words of Rev. Thai: “The time has come for the wilderness generation to make room for the generation that will enter the promised land.”[64] Here Rev. Thai compares himself to the first generation of Israelites who left Egypt but had to die in the wilderness of Sinai before the next generation could enter the land of Canaan. Once again, Rev. Thai explained an event in his life according to the story of the Bible. One pastor comments that Rev. Thai’s retirement was one of the most important acts of his ministry.[65]

3. Works

In addition to his memoirs, Rev. Thai’s writings include: Chiến Sĩ Thập Tự (Warrior for the Cross), Những Tìa Sáng (Rays of Light), Bóng Mát Giữa Sa Mạc (Shade in the Midst of the Desert), Những Bước Thuộc Linh (Spiritual Steps), Người Truyền Đạo của Đức Chúa Trời (God’s Preacher), and Châu Ngọc của Thi Thiên (The Pearl of the Psalms).[66] I was only able to obtain two works from that list. Using those two works, we can understand more about Rev. Thai’s thought, particularly his view of the Bible and the work of the preacher.

 3.1. Người Truyền Đạo của Đức Chúa Trời (God’s Preacher, Saigon, 1965)

After retiring as president of the ECVN and moving to Nha Trang, Rev. Thai taught students at the Bible and Theology Institute. Người Truyền Đạo của Đức Chúa Trời (God’s Preacher) was a book he wrote based on his teaching notes for a preaching course.[67] A student of Rev. Thai recommends this book as essential reading for anyone thinking of becoming a pastor.[68] This work intends to guide a young preacher regarding the goals and tasks of the preacher. Through this work we can understand better Rev. Thai’s view of pastoral ministry. In this essay I will focus on his view of the ministry of the preacher and pastor, particularly the call of the pastor and the relationship between the pastor and his Bible.

Rev. Thai begins this work with a chapter called “The Calling and Heavenly Ministry of the Preacher” (“Sự Kêu Gọi và Thiên-Chức của Người Truyền-Đạo”). The reason I focus on this topic is because it is very important to pastors in the Evangelical Church of Vietnam. I do not know whether they have been influenced by Rev. Thai or whether Rev. Thai is just reflecting the view of the  ECVN at large. However, in an unusually concrete and clear way, Rev. Thai advances the view that a pastor must be called by God to be a pastor.

Rev. Thai describes the preacher as one who has “a heavenly ministry of unparalleled importance, because it brings the word of salvation to his fellow countrymen, fellow creatures, and works for the future of the Kingdom of God.”[69] In this statement he not only wants to say that the ministry is important, he also wants to emphasize the heavenly nature of the ministry. He warns students against entering the ministry of preaching because of a desire for social position or because the work is compatible with their desires; he says that such reasons “have nothing heavenly” about them.[70] Based on 1 Corinthians 9:16, he argues that a preacher  “must feel ‘necessity laid upon’ him to become a preacher.”[71]

How does one know one is called? Rev. Thai answers that God calls preachers in different circumstances. He begins with the example of the story of Amos, whom he describes as a poor shepherd who heard God speak out in the field (Amos 7:15).[72] On the other hand, Isaiah, a prophet who was active during the same century as Amos, was a friend of kings and saw a vision of God (Isaiah 6). Then Jeremiah felt for a long time that he should prophesy but was not clearly led to do so before he heard God speak (Jeremiah 1).[73] Citing these three different ways that prophets were called, Rev. Thai concludes: “So we cannot say how the calling will come to us.”[74]

However, although the ways God calls are diverse, the result is the same: the preacher has “the feeling that he is appointed by God.”[75] When considering the example of the Apostle Paul, Rev. Thai comments that his calling had a heavenly character and brought about an attitude of fear. Fear allows the preacher to persevere through many difficulties and challenges. In addition, in this calling, “there is a spiritual surprise” that includes “a holy pride … as well as a wondrous humility because one is called by God.”[76] The response to this calling is “to offer oneself completely” to God, “not holding on to any personal will.”[77]

What is this heavenly work? Rev. Thai opines that the work of the pastor when he is behind the pulpit is “to lead men and women who are tired or stubborn, joyous or sad, enthusiastic or apathetic, to enter ‘the shelter of the Most High’” (quoting from Psalm 91:1). On the same page, Rev. Thai quotes from Exodus 36:4[78] to compare the work behind the pulpit with “the work of the holy place” of the priests during Old Testament times.[79] Rev. Thai holds that the main duty of the pastor is not in politics, society, education, or science but “to dig deeply into the priceless treasure of redemption,” “to know nothing… except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (citing 1 Cor 2:2).[80] His view regarding the pastor is consistent with his view of the relationship between the church and politics described above.

This view of the calling and ministry of the pastor is quite common in the Evangelical Church of Vietnam and beyond.[81] However, when I first arrived in Vietnam, I was surprised by the social distance between the laity and pastors in Vietnam. From one perspective, that is to be attributed to the cultural differences between America and Vietnam.[82] However, in the Evangelical Church of Vietnam there is the added idea that the ministry of pastor is a “heavenly ministry” (“thiên chức”). This perspective distinguishes clearly between the work of the pastor (as a heavenly ministry) and the everyday work of believers.

The second issue I want to mention is the relationship between the pastor and his Bible. In his memoirs, Rev. Thai imagines his experiences through the lens of the biblical story. In God’s Preacher, he also encourages preachers to imagine themselves living during the time the Bible was being written. He asks, “How can we preach about Amos if we do not live with him on the mountains of Tekoa and see his situation, as if it were our own situation?”[83] Before preaching, the preacher must see the biblical passage as a word for the preacher.[84] Furthermore, Rev. Thai shares about one of his habits in sermon preparation. He would imagine a group of people from different situations so that he could prepare a sermon that responds to the needs of every age group, class and level of maturity in the faith.[85] This habit is focused on application to believers more than application to the life of the pastor. However, this habit is completely consistent with his use of his imagination as described above and in his memoirs.

3.2. Châu Ngọc của Thi Thiên (The Pearl of the Psalms, Sài Gòn, 1970)

After Rev. Thai published his book, God’s Preacher, he published a commentary on the Psalms. The commentary provides another view on the way Rev. Thai engaged with the Bible. In fact, the commentary is a bit of a contrast to his memoirs, which evidence a very experiential, ahistorical approach to the Bible.

Looking at both volumes, as a scholar whose academic focus is on the Psalms, I can see that Rev. Thai has written a solid commentary, in spite of the fact that he had few reference works from which to draw. For what he had available to him, Rev. Thai interpreted the Psalms carefully. He does his best to place the psalms in the context of the scholarship he had available to him, including references to the discoveries of Ugaritic literature at Ras Shamra and the textual witness of the Vulgate.[86] He refers to several famous western authors such as Martin Luther[87] and John Calvin. His most important modern reference work was the commentary of Alexander Maclaren (1906).[88]

Rev. Thai demonstrates literary sensitivity in his interpretation of Psalm 1:1 as a process by which the wicked move toward “‘sitting’, which makes us think of something perpetual and a long-term enjoyment.”[89] On the historical side, his commentary belongs more to the tradition of nineteenth-century interpretation that emphasized the historical context of each psalm. For example, Rev. Thai accepts Psalm 13 as a Davidic psalm, and he takes it as obvious that the psalm was written when David was running from Saul,[90] although this psalm does not give any details that would support such a view. However, in explaining Psalm 2, Rev. Thai refuses to attribute the psalm either to Solomon or David because “the scope is too solemn, too immense, one cannot limit it to any kingdom of this world.”[91]

In this commentary, Rev. Thai focuses on the original meaning of the text more than application to the believer today, unlike his very personal application of Scripture in his memoirs. However, he does not ignore application. He quite freely applies some psalms to the life of Jesus and to the church. For example, he applies Psalm 2 to Jesus. Although “Pilate, Herod and the leaders of the Jews” lived in the time of Jesus, not in the time the Psalms were written, Rev. Thai describes them as the enemies of Jesus in Psalm 2:1–3.[92] He suggests that Psalm 13 could be the cry of the church in Revelation 6:10.[93] Rev. Thai also mentions ways to apply the psalms today. For example, related to Psalm 23, he advises readers not to fight their emotions, because they are “the things that teach us by the grace” of God.[94]

One of the most difficult aspects of interpreting the book of the Psalms is the imprecatory psalms. Rev. Thai’s approach here is very interesting. It appears that he does not accept these words. For example, in the context of the Israelites being exiled to Babylon, in Psalm 137:8–9 the people cry out:

O daughter of Babylon, doomed to be destroyed,
blessed shall he be who repays you
with what you have done to us!
Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones
and dashes them against the rock!

Rev. Thai calls these two verses (along with v. 7), “The heart of the hateful person of the flesh  who curses Edom and Babylon.”[95] On the one hand, he calls this psalm the “most moving of the psalms.”[96] And he sympathizes with the author. On the other hand, he does not accept the spirit of the psalm because “that is the spirit of the old law not the new law (Matthew 5:43–48).”[97] Is this the influence of Martin Luther? Rev. Thai does not say, but because he cites Martin Luther more than almost any other theologian, it is quite possible that Rev. Thai was influenced by Luther on this point.

4. Conclusion

Although Rev. Thai retired from being the president of the ECVN in 1960, he continued to work as the director of the orphanage in Nha Trang until 1968. Then in 1975, his children took him to America. In 1985 he died at the age of 95 in San Gabriel, California.[98] The influence of Rev. Thai on the evangelical community in Vietnam is deep. His nineteen years of leadership at the denominational level, as well as his teaching a generation of young pastors in southern Vietnam, ensure that his influence will continue for at least the next decade. In particular, Rev. Thai set the direction for church in Vietnam on a path of non-engagement in politics for more than the last half-century, and he may also have defined for several generations of pastors in Vietnam what it means to be called to ministry. In his advocacy for both evangelism and charitable work, Rev. Thai anticipated, in part, the commitment of the Lausanne Covenant (1974) both to evangelism and social responsibility. How much he had a hand in shaping the evangelical church of Vietnam is an issue that deserves further research. He is dearly loved and respected by many believers and pastors in Vietnam, as evidenced by the degree to which my students in Hanoi, who were born after he passed away, hold him in great affection and respect. One author summarizes what made Rev. Thai special: “On the journey of his ministry, Rev. Le Van Thai obeyed the word of the Lord and only sought refuge in him, and he walked with the Lord, and the Lord was with him.”[99] His ministerial identity and commitment to self-education provides an interesting model for pastors around the world to consider, regardless of their opportunities for formal education.

[1]          An earlier version of this paper was originally presented in Vietnamese at an international academic conference entitled “Christian Thinkers in Vietnam and the Region: Some Comparative Approaches” at the University of Social Sciences and Humanities in Hanoi, Vietnam, December 8, 2017. This article is a translation and revision of that original paper for a Christian audience that is also not very familiar with the geography or political history of Vietnam.

[2]          Trần Thái Sơn, Những Người Đi Trước Tôi (Lưu Hành Nội Bộ, 2015), 39.

[3]          Kevin J. Vanhoozer, “The Voice and the Actor: A Dramatic Proposal about the Ministry and Minstrelsy of Theology,” in Evangelical Futures: A Conversation on Theological Method, ed. John J. Stackhouse (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2000), 104.

[4]          Simon Chan, Grassroots Asian Theology: Thinking the Faith from the Ground Up (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2014).

[5]          Lê Văn Thái, Bốn Mươi Sáu Năm Chức Vụ (Sài Gòn: Cơ Quan Xuất Bản Tin Lành, 1971).

[6]          Trần Thái Sơn, Những Người Đi Trước Tôi, 29–61; Đình Dũng, “Mục Sư Lê Văn Thái,” in Tuyển Tập Tiểu Sử Người Hầu Việc Chúa (Tp. Hồ Chí Minh: NXB Phương Đông, 2011), 325–34.

[7]          Lê Hoàng Phu, Lịch Sử Hội Thánh Tin Lành Việt Nam (1911–1965) (Hà Nội: Nhà Xuất Bản Tôn Giáo, 2010), 14. Originally published as “A Short History of the Evangelical Church of Viet Nam (1911–1965)” (Ph.D. diss., New York University, 1972).

[8]          Rev. Phu also provides some general information about those who opposed him.

[9]          Đình Dũng, “Mục Sư Lê Văn Thái,” 325–26.

[10]         Lê Văn Thái, Bốn Mươi Sáu Năm, 11; emphasis original.

[11]         Ibid., 13.

[12]         Ibid.

[13]         Ibid., 14.

[14]         Ibid., 17–18.

[15]         Ibid., 24. Unless otherwise noted, English Bible quotations are taken from the English Standard Version.

[16]         Ibid., 33.

[17]         Ibid., 34.

[18]         Ibid., 36–37.

[19]         Ibid., 41.

[20]         Đình Dũng, “Mục Sư Lê Văn Thái,” 44.

[21]         Lê Hoàng Phu, Lịch Sử Hội Thánh, 130.

[22]         Lê Văn Thái, Bốn Mươi Sáu Năm, 50.

[23]         Ibid., 53.

[24]         Ibid., 54. In this instance, I have given a translation that conveys the wording of the Vietnamese translation as Rev. Thai quotes it.

[25]         Ibid., 56.

[26]         Ibid., 58.

[27]         Ibid., 59–63.

[28]         Ibid., 67.

[29]         Lê Hoàng Phu, Lịch Sử Hội Thánh, 163.

[30]         Lê Văn Thái, Bốn Mươi Sáu Năm, 70.

[31]         Lê Hoàng Phu, Lịch Sử Hội Thánh, 224.

[32]         Lê Văn Thái, Bốn Mươi Sáu Năm, 79.

[33]         Lê Hoàng Phu, Lịch Sử Hội Thánh, 223.

[34]         Ibid., 240.

[35]         Ibid., 233.

[36]         Trần Thái Sơn, Những Người Đi Trước Tôi, 60.

[37]         Đình Dũng, “Mục Sư Lê Văn Thái,” 334.

[38]         Lê Văn Thái, Bốn Mươi Sáu Năm, 160.

[39]         Ibid.

[40]         Ibid.

[41]         Ibid.

[42]         Lê Hoàng Phu, Lịch Sử Hội Thánh, 271.

[43]         Lê Hoàng Phu, “A Short History,” 341–42.

[44]         Ibid., 344.

[45]         Lê Hoàng Phu, Lịch Sử Hội Thánh, 275, 289–90.

[46]         Lê Hoàng Phu, “A Short History,” 481.

[47]         Lê Hoàng Phu, Lịch Sử Hội Thánh, 388.

[48]         Lê Văn Thái, Bốn Mươi Sáu Năm, 179–82.

[49]         Ibid., 160–61.

[50]         Ibid., 168.

[51]         Ibid.

[52]         Ibid., 169–70.

[53]         Viet Gian would be those who support the French regime, in opposition to the Viet Minh, who sought independence from French rule.

[54]         Lê Văn Thái, Bốn Mươi Sáu Năm, 170.

[55]         Ibid., 228.

[56]         Ibid., 229.

[57]         Lê Hoàng Phu, Lịch Sử Hội Thánh, 263.

[58]         Lê Văn Thái, Bốn Mươi Sáu Năm, 234.

[59]         For a theological critique of this neglect of charitable work, see Truong Van Thien Tu, “Menh Troi: Toward a Vietnamese Theology of Mission” (Ph.D. diss., Graduate Theological Union, 2009).

[60]         Today the Christian & Missionary Alliance engages in both charitable work and personal evangelism, just like Rev. Thai.

[61]         Lê Văn Thái, Bốn Mươi Sáu Năm, 239.

[62]         Trần Thái Sơn, Những Người Đi Trước Tôi, 30.

[63]         Lê Hoàng Phu, “A Short History,” 276.

[64]         Trần Thái Sơn, Những Người Đi Trước Tôi, 40.

[65]         Ibid., 60.

[66]         Ibid., 30–33.

[67]         Lê Văn Thái, Người Truyền Đạo của Đức Chúa Trời (Sài Gòn, 1965), I.

[68]         Trần Thái Sơn, Những Người Đi Trước Tôi, 30.

[69]         Lê Văn Thái, Người Truyền Đạo của Đức Chúa Trời, I.

[70]         Ibid., 1.

[71]         Ibid., 2.

[72]         Ibid.

[73]         Ibid., 3.

[74]         Ibid., 4.

[75]         Ibid.

[76]         Ibid., 5.

[77]         Ibid., 7.

[78]         Rev. Thai mistakenly says this is verse 11.

[79]         Lê Văn Thái, Người Truyền Đạo của Đức Chúa Trời, 47.

[80]         Ibid., 27.

[81]         For example, this view about calling as related to the calling of the prophets of Israel is described in Joe E. Trull and James E. Carter, Ministerial Ethics: Moral Formation for Church Leaders, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2004), 24.

[82]         For example, Americans do not distinguish as much between the social position of teacher and student. They sometimes call each other friends. Believers in the church also call their pastor a friend. The social distance is not great, except when the pastor is much older.

[83]         Lê Văn Thái, Người Truyền Đạo của Đức Chúa Trời, 35.

[84]         Ibid., 38.

[85]         Ibid., 39.

[86]         Lê Văn Thái, Châu Ngọc Của Thi Thiên: Quyển Thượng, vol. 1 (Sài Gòn, HCM: Phòng Sách Tin Lành, 1970), 14.

[87]         Ibid., 1:59, 147, et passim.

[88]         Alexander Maclaren, Expositions of Holy Scripture (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1906).

[89]         Lê Văn Thái, Châu Ngọc Của Thi Thiên, 1970, 1:16.

[90]         Ibid., 1:59–60.

[91]         Ibid., 1:20.

[92]         Ibid.

[93]         Ibid., 1:60.

[94]         Ibid., 1:106.

[95]         Lê Văn Thái, Châu Ngọc Của Thi Thiên: Quyển Hạ, vol. 2 (Sài Gòn, HCM: Phòng Sách Tin Lành, 1970), 383.

[96]         Ibid.

[97]         Ibid., 2:385.

[98]         Đình Dũng, “Mục Sư Lê Văn Thái,” 331.

[99]         Ibid., 334.


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